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The Strange Case of Solar Flares and Radioactive Decay Rates 408

Posted by Soulskill
from the cool-science dept.
DarkKnightRadick writes "Current models for radioactive decay have been challenged by, of all sources, the sun. According to the article, 'On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare.' This is important because the rate of decay is very important not just for antique dating, but also for cancer treatment, time keeping, and the generation of random numbers. This isn't a one time measurement, either. 'Checking data collected at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and the Federal Physical and Technical Institute in Germany, they came across something even more surprising: long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 seemed to show a small seasonal variation. The decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.'"
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The Strange Case of Solar Flares and Radioactive Decay Rates

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  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:34PM (#33350884) Homepage Journal

    but what it *does* do is call into question the very premise that those methods are based on ... It seems that the more we study the more we find out that these things humanity has been 'sure of' at points in history are just plain wrong: the earth isn't flat, the earth isn't the center of the solar system, and maybe the earth isn't billions of years old

    TFA doesn't say how much the observed decay rates might be changing, but I really, really doubt that it's enough to make a difference to our large-scale picture of how old things are (Earth, billions of years; multicellular life, hundreds of millions of years, etc.) If the rates were that variable, we would have seen other signs of it before now. Things might turn out to be a little younger or older than we thought, but Really Old is still going to be Really Old.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:36PM (#33350892)

    Humans are fallible, ergo God exists.

    You're a fucking imbecile.

  • by Guppy (12314) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:39PM (#33350920)

    One of the really cool parts of this finding -- in modern times, experimental particle physics has required increasingly huge machines (and budgets) to participate. For a change, here's researchers everywhere can participate in, possibly revolutionary, and for very little cost.

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:41PM (#33350930)
    Facts:
    1. long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 show a small seasonal variation (on Earth conditions? With lab equipment that can be subject to other seasonal variation?)
    2. radioactive decay of the Pu-238 isotope is insensitive (within the experimental precision) to distance to the Sun

    What valid conclusion can one derive from the above facts? In my opinion, exactly one, which is more research is necessary.

  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Monday August 23, 2010 @11:58PM (#33351060)

    but what it *does* do is call into question the very premise that those methods are based on.

    Right. It's altogether conceivable that trees grew a dozens of rings per year until just before we started looking!

    It seems that the more we study the more we find out that these things humanity has been 'sure of' at points in history are just plain wrong: the earth isn't flat, the earth isn't the center of the solar system, and maybe the earth isn't billions of years old...

    The only reliable trend is that every time we find out something is wrong, the universe proves to be even more unlike sacred texts portray it.

  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @12:11AM (#33351138) Homepage

    What valid conclusion can one derive from the above facts? In my opinion, exactly one, which is more research is necessary.

    And that's a conclusion you can take to the bank (after the grant comes in, of course).

  • by gman003 (1693318) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @12:19AM (#33351190)

    More likely, our current measured rates are accurate averages, but this will widen the margin of error. So instead of "five million years old, plus or minus ten thousand years" you might get "five million years old, plus or minus a hundred thousand years".

  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:30AM (#33351560)

    Two interesting points are missing (maybe I should go and read TFA).

    1) The actual variation measured in decay of Si-32 and Ra-226. How small is small? Second, third, fourth significant digit? Even smaller maybe?

    2) The experimental precision of the Pu-238 experiment.

    The precision of 2) should be at least an order of magnitude better than the precision of 1) to be able to reasonably rule out solar effects in case of 2). Considering experiment 2) is done on board a space craft and 1) is done on earth, I don't expect this to be the case.

  • by cmarkn (31706) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @01:41AM (#33351638)

    Only scientific proof is scientific proof.

    Uh, no. There is no such thing as “scientific proof”. There is scientific evidence, which can be very convincing, but nothing is ever certain. There are logical and mathematical proofs, but those are different things.

  • by Vintermann (400722) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @02:02AM (#33351772) Homepage

    Decay ... rates? What's a decay rate if time doesn't exist?

  • Re:Earth Date (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @02:59AM (#33352094)

    Did anyone actually predict this *before* this effect was measured?

  • by kanto (1851816) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @03:04AM (#33352112)
    This is more like having a factor which influences the probabilities of the different sides of the dice... you could say things just got even more dicier.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @03:31AM (#33352240)

    Silicon 32 has a smaller cross section than Manganese 54, and therefore the rate of transmutation due to neutrino interaction would be lower.
    Silicon 32 (atomic no 14) Manganese 54 (atomic number 25) both have 4 'extra' neutrons, and so are otherwise similar from a cross sectional perspective.
    Perhaps there is a threshold below which the transmutation is less likely.
    Can someone with good QCD knowledge comment?

  • Re:dogma (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sockatume (732728) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @04:02AM (#33352378)

    If it were dogma, physicists wouldn't be the ones challenging it. You don't see many Catholics disputing the existence of God. That's dogma.

  • by node_chomsky (1830014) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:10AM (#33352974)
    Finally! When I say "Science has been in a perpetual state of being wrong since it's inception", I can now point out fundamental changes in what is thought of as indisputable information. Understand that I am a working scientist, and my attitude is not meant to dismiss science, but to point out that people are often wrong in what they think is objective truth. The world is a bit too complicated for anyone to claim that they have a thorough understanding of the universe. Not to say truth is unobtainable, there is just a lot of it, and it's hard to really wrap your head around the exocentric universe in full.
  • Re:dogma (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:28AM (#33353070)

    "This is how I was taught 30 years ago and it's how I'm teaching you now." - My physics teacher, in an angry voice when I mentioned quantum mechanics during class.

    Wow. Was he wearing robes and a silly? Were people kissing his ring?

    -FL

  • Cause and effect (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Skapare (16644) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:34AM (#33353118) Homepage

    TFA seems to assume "seemed to be influenced by activities inside the sun" and "something produced by the sun had traveled all the way through the Earth" ... e.g. that it is the sun affecting the isotopes. Why not the other way around? I'm sure there are some of these isotopes inside the sun. So if their decay rates change, won't that have an effect on the sun?

  • by Fantastic Lad (198284) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:38AM (#33353156)

    Considering the idea that "Time" does not exist, I am inclined to look with interest at anything which affects the observed weirdness of time. If only atomic clocks have been used to measure time distortion due to differences in relative motion, then the two things might be related.

    I don't know about General Relativity being a baseless cult, though. While it is still called a theory, it has proven a particularly useful one which is essential for calculating the correct deployment and use of satellites. -This from an engineer who works specifically in the area of military satellite communications.

    -FL

  • by c0lo (1497653) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:47AM (#33353202)

    No, you can also conclude that some isotopes decay rates are affected by some external factors i.e. that decay rate is not a fixed constant for all materials.

    This is an earthshattering discovery stop being so boring about it.

    Ah, yes. Like we didn't know it already that some thermal neutrons thrown at U235 will cause a faster decay. An, indeed, quite earth-shattering if you allow the reaction go super-critical. Except that I wouldn't call this discovery as something very new; would you?

    So, I think my conclusion still stands: more research is necessary to discover what causes the variation of decay rate in this particular case. And, as any research, it can be boring for some, exciting for others.

  • by shadowofwind (1209890) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @06:49AM (#33353218)

    Another possibility would be that some other influence is affecting both the decay rates and the solar activity. If I had to make a poorly informed guess, I would pick that over the idea of the sun influencing the decay rates.

    Assuming this decay rate thing is real, and not some subtle misunderstanding about the measuring technique, am I the only one who thinks this is a fantastic result?

  • by ShakaUVM (157947) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @07:17AM (#33353402) Homepage Journal

    Considering that Saint Augustine (circa 400AD) argued against a literal Genesis, it's not really that surprising that a lot of Catholics don't believe in a literal Genesis. He's one of the foundations of the church. (Doctor of the Church? Whatever the term is.)

    While it's always been a debate in Christianity, Biblical Literalism coming to the forefront is really quite a modern development.

  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @07:21AM (#33353434)

    Both are important.

    If you can measure three significant digits, and your effect is in the fifth, then you do not see it. However a more precise measuring apparatus may measure up to six significant digits, and there the effect may become visible.

    Only when the effect becomes visible you can start saying anything about statistical significance.

    For example, I'm measuring the distance between two points. This distance is say 850 meters, and with my yardstick I can measure accurate to the meter. I do this every week for ten years and will not realise there is a fault line in between these points and they are moving apart.

    However someone else is doing the exact same measurement with laser equipment that measures to the tenth of a millimetre. He will notice that we start off at 849.8452 meters, and that ten years later it has slowly increased to 849.8473 meters.

    The first measurement reaching three significant digits does not see any effect, and quite rightfully says the distance has not changed. It indeed barely has. The second measurement that reaches seven significant digits however does see an effect. The sixth and seventh digit slowly but surely increase over the years.

    So here you see why the number of significant digits, the precision of your measurements does have an effect to whether you can see an effect or not. If your measurement is not precise enough then the effect (the slow movement of the earth's crust) disappears in the noise.

    And to come back on my previous comment: this is why the measurements on both the spacecraft (no effect) and on earth (have effect) can both be correct, and do not necessarily contradict. As half life has long been considered a constant for a certain isotope I'm sure this effect is really really small. It was pretty hard to see, and it appears only noticeable when you really start looking for it. Otherwise you will miss it. This effect seems to be on the edge of our current capabilities, and small enough to be dismissed as noise by most researchers.

  • by postermmxvicom (1130737) on Tuesday August 24, 2010 @10:41AM (#33356092)
    Hello. I am a Bible believing slashdotter. My college degree is in theoretical physics at a state university. My beliefs have never caused a serious permanent conflict with my education. Many people here would tell me that it should. They bash and mock young-earthers or any number of beliefs which *they* see as irreconcilable with science. Just a couple of things I want to point out:

    1) Many *many* scientific advances have been made by deeply religious men and funded by a church. This is true historically and into our modern era. If you want a citation, use google.

    2) Yes, there are religious people who do not understand science and say things that make us science folk cringe. That is not an excuse to bash religion or faith. That will not endear you to anyone or further scientific education. Remember there are also loony unscientific atheists, agnostics, as well as people of any other philosophical or religious persuasion. Pseudo-science is *not* the exclusive domain of the religious.

    Do you want the general public to treat scientist and nerds the way some of you treat religious people? "Hey, a scientist sold me these brilliant pebbles [machinadynamica.com]. It turns out it's a crock - all scientist must be idiots! After all, this guy claiming to be a scientist is." We could all list countless failures by honest and dishonest men of science. Would you like the general public to lump you all together with ridicule and discard any science that has ever been touched or used by one of these men? They would throw out all of science! I am asking for you to be kind and understanding. It is possible to point out weaknesses in someone's theory without scorn and ridicule and without trying to trash their beliefs because of it. That will only alienate most people.

    Defending an idea with bad science does not make the idea wrong - only the defense.

Blessed be those who initiate lively discussions with the hopelessly mute, for they shall be known as Dentists.

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